Dave Gallaher: Rugby Legend And Hero

He died in the First World War and we as a team recognise he was the figure of the legacy that started where we are today. All Blacks 2015 World Cup skipper, Richie McCaw

Casualties of war

By Roger Childs

New Zealand lost over 16,700 men and women in World War One and this included a number of sporting stars.

The country’s greatest tennis player, four time Wimbledon winner Anthony Wilding, was killed in 1915.

And it was 100 years ago, on October 4 1917, that the captain of the famous 1905-06 All Blacks,Dave Gallaher, was killed in Belgium on the Western Front.

He was one of 13 All Blacks to die serving the British Empire in the great war.

From Ireland to New Zealand

Probably the public meeting they attended in 1877 to listen to the silver tongued George Vesey Stewart extol the virtues of his Kati Kati settlement… was a catalyst to their decision … Kay Carter on why the Gallahers migrated.

David Gallagher was born in the small town of Ramelton in the Irish county of Donegal. In 1878 when he was only five, the family emigrated to New Zealand and settled in the Bay of Plenty town of Kati Kati.

His mother was a strong, proud woman who wanted the best for her children. Because her husband was 32 years older, Maria was the breadwinner for the family and made the best of her modest teacher’s salary. She supplemented this by also being the school cleaner!

In an age before contraception was widely available, she was typical of many wives of the time having children year after year. In all she had 14, four of whom died in infancy. Tragically she did not live to see any of her grandchildren, as she passed away aged 42 in 1887.

Two years before, David spent eight days in Auckland hospital having successful operations to correct a contraction of the left leg and a spinal curvature, problems which had afflicted him for many years.

War service in South Africa

… I got a bulls eye that day when they were doing a retreat but two of them came back and got him away between them & I did not have the heart to fire at them while they were doing so … David Gallaher in a letter to his sister Molly, 8 January 1902

David had strong patriotic instincts and these would ultimately cost him his life in 1917.

However, at the start of the 20th century he served in the South African War of Independence (Boer War) and survived.

He was a member of the Mounted Rifles, rose to the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major and won a number of medals.

The leadership skills he demonstrated on the battlefields of South Africa would stand him in good stead on the rugby fields of New Zealand, Britain and France.

Work and play in Auckland

The football club, the freezing company workers and the army, (and even several lodges he belonged to),were like close-knit families of men, and his coaches, mentors and older staff more akin to  fathers in age difference. Kay Carter on Dave Gallaher’s role models after his mother and father died in 1887 and 1894 respectively.

In Auckland he worked as a flour miller and in the freezing works. He rowed for the West End Club and enjoyed sailing, but rugby was his great sporting love. He played for Parnell Football Club, then the famous Ponsonby Club and from 1896 was playing for Auckland province.

Sometimes as a hooker or a wing forward he was clearly destined for higher things. In 1903 he was picked for the All Blacks’ tour to Australia where they won all their matches.

Captain of “The Originals” 1905-06

Dave was a man of sterling worth … girded by great self-determination and self control. He was a valuable friend and could be, I think, a remorseless foe. To us All Blacks his words would often be ‘Give nothing away: take no chances’. Team mate and Otago three-quarter, Ernie Booth

Being picked in the All Black team to tour Britain, France and California was no surprise, but his selection as captain caused controversy.  Gallaher had little experience leading teams and there were others better qualified.

On the long boat trip to England, players and officials voted on the leadership, and although it was far from unanimous, the team then closed ranks behind the new skipper.

It was an extraordinarily successful tour with some amazing results in the days when a try was worth just 3 points but a drop goal 4!!

  • 35 matches played from September 1905 to February 1906
  • 34 wins and only 1 loss: they played every three of four days
  • First game in England v Devon 55-4!
  • 976 points scored and only 59 against.
  • In 23 games the opposition failed to score any points.
  • All the tests were won except against Wales. The 0-3 loss in Cardiff was mired in controversy which persists to this day. (See below.)
  • In Wales there were some close scores against club teams: 6-3, 10-8, 4-3
  • In America, the British Columbia team came down to play in Berkeley and San Francisco. A few weeks after the All Blacks left, the city was levelled by the most destructive earthquake in US history.

Triumphant return and the disputed try

The consensus of opinion was that it was not defeat at all, but try against try! Premier, Richard Seddon

King Dick was referring to the infamous disallowed try against Wales. Bob Deans claimed he had scored and the crowd went silent when he “crossed” the line. By the time the very unfit Scottish referee arrived, Deans said that he had been dragged back into the field of play.

The touch judge was not consulted, but subsequently said it was a try. Of course,they tell it differently in Wales!

The All Blacks also thought they had scored close to full time, but the referee ruled a forward pass.

The loss to Wales didn’t stop The Originals getting a tumultuous reception back in Auckland. At the banquet in the Rutland Street Drill Hall, Gallaher was singled out for loud and continuous applause. (Christopher Tobin)

Dave Gallaher settles down

On his return he retired from playing rugby and moved into the game’s administration. Dave was Auckland’s selector and coach for ten years and an All Black selector from 1907 to 1914.

In 1906 he married Ellen Francis and their only child Nora was born in 1908. Sailing again became a popular leisure activity.

When war broke out in 1914 David was 41, a family man and heavily involved in Auckland rugby. Most New Zealand volunteers in the days before conscription were younger men and it seemed unlikely that he would serve.

World War One: a tragic end

As he lay dying on a pallet in the (casualty) station, a Catholic priest was administering to  the soldier lying in the pallet next to Gallaher’s … The priest asked if he knew who his neighbour was, and when Fitzgerald said he did not, the priest said, “ That is Dave Gallaher, Captain of the 1905 All Blacks”. Online Cenotaph, Auckland War Memorial Museum

In spite of family opposition, David Gallaher responded to the increasing calls for enlistment. He sailed from Wellington on the Aparima in February 1917 as a Company Sergeant Major in the Auckland Infantry Regiment. He first saw action in June 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres.

In October, as part of the Third Batallion, Dave’s regiment was involved in an assault on Gravenstafel Spur near the ultimate objective of Passchendaele. It was a successful attack: 1000 metres were gained and 1000 Germans were captured. But the New Zealanders lost 320 including Dave Gallaher.

He died of head wounds at No 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station on October 4.

The legacy of David Gallaher

Richie McCaw with the Gallaher trophy

As New Zealanders, we honour Dave Gallaher and keep him in our hearts, not just as a leader on the field of play, but because he paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend our country and its values. All Black Conrad Smith

David Gallaher is a rugby legend and continues to be remembered. The Dave Gallaher Shield is awarded to the winner of the premier rugby competition in Auckland and was first presented in 1922.

More recently the Dave Gallaher Trophy has been contested between France and the All Blacks. He played against France in 1906 and eleven years later lost his life just across the French border in Belgium.

In 2005, Captain Tana Umaga, Conrad Smith and three other All Blacks visited Ramelton, Dave Gallaher’s birth place. They also went to Letterkenny, 12.5km to the south, where the local rugby club had renamed its sports ground Dave Gallaher Memorial Park.

Then, in 2011, a statue of the rugby legend was unveiled at Eden Park, where Dave Gallaher had coached Auckland teams over ninety years before.

Coming forward to 3 October 2015, the Defence Blacks  (the New Zealand Defence Force rugby team) played a match in the Dave Gallaher Rugby Tournament against Belgium.

He is also remembered in other ways. Kati Kati School unveiled a mural in 2010 which features both Maria the teacher and David the student.

There are also two poems written by Irishmen in which the great man is honoured.

A verse from Jeremy Worth’s Gallaher is perhaps a fitting way to end this tribute.

Through the mists of time, a figure stands tall,

An All Black legend from Donegal,

He played with power, poise and pace,

An iron man with an honest face.


(A range of sources have been used to write this article, but I would like to acknowledge the special help of Kay Carter. Her book Maria Gallaher: Her Short Life And Her Children’s Stories was invaluable.)